By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
ARLINGTON — First it snowed, then it flooded and now the bad economy is keeping the neon “Closed” sign glowing permanently in the windows of a longtime Island Crossing restaurant.
Rachel O’Brien likens the closure of O’Brien Turkey House to a death in the family.
Four generations of the O’Brien family had served hot turkey sandwiches, clam chowder and blackberry pie at the highway eatery since it opened in 1961.
“We really are in mourning,” she said. “Everything has a beginning and an end, but we are sick that it’s over on our watch.”
Rachel’s husband, owner Kerry O’Brien, had been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week without a paycheck for nearly three months in his fight to keep the Turkey House open.
The death knell actually began to sound last summer when gas prices shot up and O’Brien’s mostly older local clientele, and many regular freeway travelers, stopped coming in as much.
Chain restaurants can survive because they buy in bulk and have the support of a larger corporation. Others make it because they serve alcohol. These are cruel times for family restaurants, the couple said.
Snowstorms in December kept customers away, and then the Stillaguamish River jumped its banks in early January. Despite sandbags at the doors, more than 3 feet of silty water swept through the restaurant. Frozen turkeys thawed, dishes broke and flour mixed with river water to make a sticky paste on the kitchen’s tile floor.
The restaurant was closed for two weeks while O’Brien and his staff worked to clean up and get the business open again. Between the snow and the flood, O’Brien figures his business lost more than $50,000 in revenue. His flood insurance had such a high deductible, it didn’t really cover the cleanup costs. Creditors were calling as he tried to keep the restaurant going.
He didn’t want to shut the doors, and neither did his loyal customers.
Susan and Sam Ingram were on their way home to Arlington on Saturday when they decided to stop by the Turkey House for a hearty meal.
A sign just inside the door told them the restaurant was open for its last weekend.
“We just stood there in shock, our mouths gaping open,” Susan Ingram said. “The waitresses put smiles on their faces, but everyone was devastated. It’s not fair that family-owned places are going out of business.”
On Sunday, the restaurant was packed with people sitting in their favorite booths, eating turkey dinners, hugging the waitresses and sharing their memories of the restaurant.
There was the couple who years ago got engaged over a bowl of pie and ice cream, and the widower who came in to remember all the after-church Sunday dinners he shared with his wife.
Many talked about their stops at O’Brien’s before heading out to fish, cut a Christmas tree or see the tulips in Skagit Valley. Looking around the restaurant Monday, the O’Briens could still imagine the loyal regulars where empty chairs now sat.
“This place is so strange without the smell of the food and the noise of the customers. We are so grateful to them,” Kerry O’Brien said. “The business is as old as the Space Needle, and like the Space Needle, some people didn’t visit much, but they expected the Turkey House to be here forever.”
The O’Briens recently sold their property in order to pay the restaurant’s taxes and debts.
Rachel O’Brien works as a registered nurse and is looking to the future. Her husband has never had time to go camping with their son Reilly, 18, and it’s about time they went. Their daughter Kaitlin, 20, born on St. Patrick’s Day, will be relieved not to spend another birthday at the Irish-themed restaurant.
Kerry and Rachel O’Brien spent Monday afternoon at the Turkey House writing letters of recommendation for their employees and preparing to serve them one last turkey dinner.
Server Sharon Jungers, 66, worked nearly 40 years for the O’Brien family, starting with Kerry’s grandparents.
Her last shift was Friday, but she came in Sunday to help close the restaurant for the last time.
She teased the O’Briens, saying they shut down just so they wouldn’t have to buy her a gold watch.
“They made us part of their wonderful family,” Jungers said. “It still hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s been an incredible ride.”